Wesley Morris visits the intersection of Race Avenue and Patriotism Boulevard and discovers whole lot of potholes in need ot repair. The temerity of Colin Kapernick to protest during the de rigueur performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" prior to all San Francisco 49er kickoffs is the starting point. However, Morris plumbs the depths of some of the patriotism potholes and uncovers a lot of unpleasantness (and hypocrisy). If this is a (fair & balanced) meditation on patriotism in 2016, so be it.
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Colin Kaepernick And The Question Of Who Gets To Be Called A "Patriot"
By Wesley Morris
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
Citizenship is citizenship, until appearances get in the way. The world now knows, for instance, that Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, is protesting racial injustice — all because of a routine photo, taken during the singing of the national anthem before a preseason game. The photographer, Jennifer Lee Chan, tweeted the image last month, writing, “This team formation for the national anthem is not Jeff Fisher-approved.” Fisher is the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, who, in an episode of the reality football show “Hard Knocks,” told his team that standing for the anthem was sacrosanct: “It’s an opportunity to realize how lucky you are.” Yet here was Kaepernick, sitting down.
Kaepernick’s sitting was, it emerged, a stance. Two days later, he took reporters’ questions, including one about whether he was concerned that his actions could be taken as an indictment of law enforcement. His answer had teeth. “There is police brutality — people of color have been targeted by police,” he said. Then: “You can become a cop in six months and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist. That’s insane. Someone that’s holding a curling iron has more education and more training than people that have a gun and are going out on the street to protect us.”
That’s one rejoinder to the unconditional gratitude — the compulsory expression of thankfulness for a nation that prides itself on freedom of expression — that the Jeff Fishers of the world demand. If you’re a black man, as Kaepernick is, your ambivalence about patriotic rituals may be a way of asking the same question Fisher raised: How lucky are we, exactly?
Kaepernick has found plenty of support. His red No.7 jersey is currently the NFL store’s top seller; a bloc of veterans defended him online. Other athletes have joined his protest, which now entails taking a knee during the anthem. Meanwhile, detractors have fixated on Kaepernick’s wealth, or the fact that he was adopted and raised by middle-class white parents. So what’s with the Afro and the Malcolm X hat? Show some respect for what you’ve been given! Kaepernick was booed at a game in San Diego, and the Santa Clara police union threatened to stop working security at 49ers home games. It didn’t take long, either, for the most toxic, reactionary, obvious racism and contempt to surface. Kaepernick was called a nigger on social media and actually had to explain that, despite dating a Muslim woman, he has not converted to Islam. He was also invited, by the likes of Donald Trump, to consider leaving the country.
When a black American protests the demoralizing practices of American government, there is always a white person eager to unfurl the welcome mat to Africa. This is where racism and patriotism tend to point: toward the exits. For some, we learn, being American is conditional on behaving like a grateful guest: You belong here because we tolerate your presence. We don’t yet appear to have settled the matter of citizenship — not even for our president, another black man backhandedly accused of harboring terrorist sympathies. We operate on the old logic that only members of the family are allowed to tell hard truths about the family’s flaws. And when black people speak about America, they’re informed that they do not actually have a seat at the grown-ups’ table and that they should be grateful to be around at all.
“Patriotism” is a cornerstone of football, America’s most popular and most lucrative sport. “I support our players when they want to see change in society,” Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, told The Associated Press. “On the other hand, we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL.”
Of course we do. Football has long sought to conflate itself with the military, making it easy to confuse players with troops and political protest with treason. Last year, a report by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake investigated the $6.8 million the Department of Defense had paid sports, mostly to pro football, for recruitment and promotional activities over a four-year period — including full-field displays of the American flag and surprise reunion events between service members and their families. The league announced that it would return $723,734, money spent not on recruitment but on what McCain and Flake called “paid patriotism.” Is it any wonder Kaepernick comes off more like a deserter than a concerned American?
“Patriot” has a niftily concise definition: “one who loves and loyally or zealously supports one’s own country.” Support can take the form of dissent just as readily as cheerleading — each is a way of suggesting what kind of nation America is to become, and patriots have lived and died on all sides of the argument. But during the 20th century, patriotism began to treat the question as one we’ve settled. The marketable, propagandistic imagery of World War II gave way to the paranoid suspicion of the Cold War era, and patriotism, more and more, morphed into a matter of optics — of theater. Love of country turned performative. We can know patriotism only when we see it — and so you’ve really got to show it.
As a result, modern patriotism has become Kabuki citizenship. It’s Joseph McCarthy; it’s the House Un-American Activities Committee. It’s “Freedom fries” and “These colors don’t run.” It’s American-flag pins and the people who go nuts when a politician is caught without one.
But is it also Leslie Jones? Jones is the actress, comedian and “Saturday Night Live” cast member whose appearance in a “Ghostbusters” remake was greeted with a campaign of racist Twitter abuse. Dark-skinned and unapologetically, un-self-consciously black, Jones seemed to take the harassment in stride. Last month, at home, she did what a lot of us did, only better: She watched the Rio Olympics and tweeted videos of her overjoyed color commentary.
After a few days, NBC invited Jones to bring her exclamatory disbelief to Brazil, where she screamed encouragement at Kerri Walsh Jennings and bearhugged an amused Ryan Seacrest. She made her way from event to event, venue to venue, accosting athletes, cracking them up, weeping in the stands over the gymnast Simone Biles. Whenever an athlete did anything, there she was, shouting: “Slay all day! USA!” For a few nights, she became NBC’s Olympic mascot, a superfan turned overnight into a new kind of superpatriot — the chest-thumping booster-bro as boisterous black woman.
Jones had been redefining the face of patriotism — a face that has been evoked by both Marvel’s Captain America and Peter Fonda’s counterculture version. But to some of her fellow citizens, she’ll only ever be an interloper. Soon after her return, hackers invaded her personal website and aired private information. Whiteness and America have always been kept synonymous, conjoined, fiercely paired. Attempts to problematize that marriage — to open it up and show whom it excludes — are reliably met with fear and resistance. New expressions of patriotism always make certain white people fear that a wedge is being driven between them and their America — whether by Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the Army, or by Black Lives Matter, or by a backup quarterback for the 49ers. The fear is almost as old as the nation. Sometimes it feels as if the fear is the nation.
Love of country can be tender, of course. It can also be tough, and that toughness can be expressed zealously, too. Jones and Kaepernick both amplify the idea that patriotism doesn’t mean much if a citizen can’t ask what it’s good for or examine its elasticity. Kaepernick has vowed not to stand for the anthem until the injustices he has enumerated have been meaningfully addressed. He’s worried for his country. I’m worried for his knees. Ω
[Wesley Morris is a critic-at-large for the NY Fshwrap. He came to the Times in 2015 from Grantland where he wrote about film, fashion, and music. Morris spent 10 years at The Boston Globe, where he won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Morris received a BA (film studies and literature) from Yale University.]
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